Taking The Refugee Hysteria Off Ice – OpEd


There are many reasons why Australian foreign policy can be viewed from the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe. For one, it is largely dictated, in terms of security, by the competitive, acquisitive urgings of the United States.  Fictional reassurances are offered to supposedly calm nerves in Canberra against phantom threats: extended nuclear deterrence, the furnishing of nuclear-powered submarines, the need for a satellite intelligence base.  In return Uncle demands cash, blood and loyalty; and Uncle shall receive.  

The other perspective is economic.  Here, Australia relies on China’s voracious appetite for such commodities as iron ore.  We dislike you and your Middle Kingdom aspirations, President Xi Jinping, but please buy our minerals.

This state of affairs impoverishes policy and prioritises laziness.  Where, then, to excel in this field of craven compromise? Given Australia’s distant, island status, and the obvious point that it is an immigrant society, political wonks and wags came up with the following formula: punish foreign arrivals seeking safety for the way they arrive (an open breach of the UN Refugee Convention), and libel them for their background (economic, selfish, queue jumping). For a country based on the fruits and celebration of illegality – the penal colony, the dispossession and killing of natives, the celebration of squattocracy – this was supremely ironic.

Since the 2000s, Australia has run a system of spectacular cruelty demonising those seeking asylum by sea. With nauseating consistency, the Australian body politic continues to keep concentration camp outposts for imminent asylum arrivals in Nauru and Manus Island. The government may have changed in May 2022, but the demonology had not. The Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, continues to use such expressions as “breaking the market model” and deterring people smugglers.

In September, according to Rear Admiral Justin Jones, 11 people had been intercepted in September “and they were transferred to Nauru for regional processing by the government in Nauru.”  In line with traditional secrecy protocols, little by way of useful information was provided about the transfer, though the Rear Admiral was happy to explain that the boat was not turned back because “we were not able to safely or lawfully conduct a take-back or turn-back.”  

The first assistant secretary of people smuggling policy at the Home Affairs department, Michael Thomas, was also reticent on operational matters, not wishing to compromise Australia’s relationship with Nauru “as well as privacy and safety”. 

Despite this negligible number, the Daily Telegraph was keen to treat the attempt by eleven desperate individuals seeking Australian shores as a horrendous attempt at penetrating the country’s own vaunted borders. This was blamed on the account keeping types in the Labor government. “There has been a 14 per cent reduction compared to the previous year in the time when planes are out patrolling the borders and a further 6 per cent reduction in the days when there are ships out patrolling.” Be wary of those flotillas, threatening Australia.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton was beside himself with joy at the revelation, as was the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, Senator James Patterson. In the Coalition, a lacerating sadism continues to fascinate.

In a press release on October 24, Senator Patterson was merrily announcing what unimaginative Australian politicians have been churning out since the 1990s. “The Coalition warned Labor that its dismantling of Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) would re-incentivise people smugglers and put lives at risk.”  

OSB may have had a budgetary trimming but is hardly dismantled.  But Patterson sees them as more or less equivalent.  “The latest venture comes at the same time as a planned A$600 million cut to border security in Labor’s most recent budget, which the Australian Border Force Commissioner confirmed in Senate Estimates in May 2023 would leave his frontline forces ‘stretched’.”  

With characteristic disingenuousness, Patterson goes on to claim that deaths at sea are tragic. Labor, we are told, was responsible for 1,200 deaths at sea between 2008 and 2013 from more than 50,000 arrivals.  (Nothing is said about illegal arrivals by air, but Patterson is an obedient peddler of misleading narratives.)

Much like the Israeli commander who delights in pulverising several blocks of Palestinian civilians in order to destroy a terrorist military target, Patterson is keen to kill the fly with a bazooka to preserve hygiene. We come to that old, revolting solution: camps.  And more camps. Centres where hope is stymied, quelled and suffocated. Spaces where education, revelation and curiosity are reduced to the perverted whim of guards, and the license of private contracting companies.  

It follows that locking asylum seekers in offshore Pacific Island centres that denigrate, destroy, mutilate and rape them is somehow better than the watery grave they are supposedly spared from. 

What the Senator then goes on to do is trumpet the virtues of a military grade policy that should, under any sensible human rights regime, be regarded as a crime against humanity. With little by way of evidence, Patterson squawks the line that “the Coalition’s OSB sent a clear message of deterrence to people smugglers looking to sell illegal voyages to Australia. This work is being undone.” 

Unfortunately, its work is not being undone quickly enough, meaning that the Australian taxpayer continues to foot the hefty bill for running a detention system – A$400 million for Nauru this year alone, despite it having, on current numbers, only 13 asylum seekers.

The OSB operation, which has never been audited, was demonstrably corrupt, displacing, rather than terminating naval arrivals, merely shuffling the trafficking of those wishing to find sanctuary in Australia. There is much to suggest that OSB aided, rather than impaired, the maligned market model with payments made to people smugglers to simply return their human quarry back to neighbouring countries such as Indonesia. After all, it’s a bit difficult to scotch and stomp on the right to asylum, whatever the semi-literate filers in Canberra might claim. International law is forgotten in that cold capital, but it has a habit of reappearing in other, distant fora. 

Perhaps, given the rampant Philosemitic feeling running with passion through the Coalition and strains of the Albanese government, they might want to consider how the likes of Oskar Schindler, the twentieth century’s great, law-breaking smuggler of Jews out of Nazi Germany, might be treated?  For Senator Patterson, not well, one suspects.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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